In the 11 years following October Road, James Taylor's songwriting output pretty much came to a halt. Fearing that he had lost his creative edge, he convinced his family, friends and manager to let him cut off all communication for the year of 2013 to focus on writing a new album. To accomplish this, he rented a waterfront apartment in Newport, Rhode Island, where in September of that year he began composing the new songs that would become Before This World.
Shortly afterward, in January 2014, Taylor felt sufficiently confident in his output to begin recording the basic tracks for the album at his barn in Western Massachusetts with producer Dave O'Donnell and the primary musicians on the album: bassist Jimmy Johnson, guitarist Michael Landau, keyboardist Larry Goldings, and drummer Steve Gadd. The tracks were laid down in just 10 days.
In March 2014, the background vocals were recorded at Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles with backing vocalists David Lasley, Arnold McCuller, Kate Markowitz and Andrea Zonn. Instrumental overdubs were recorded at various studios from November 2014 through January 2015.
On June 15, 2015, Taylor released only his second album of the century that wasn't all covers or Christmas tunes.
The album opens with "Today, Today, Today," a mid-tempo number marked by prominent fiddle from Andrea Zonn. Steve Gadd uses brushes on the drums, Luis Conte adds clip clop percussion from Luis Conte, and Michael Landau added some nifty electric guitar. James adds a harmonica solo. Fittingly, the song is about new beginnings, introducing as it does a long-awaited and completely worthy addition to the Taylor canon. According to James, the song was partially inspired by his big break with Apple Records and the Beatles in London in 1968.
"You And I Again" is a sweet, accomplished love song from James to his wife Kim. Driven by piano from Larry Goldings and a cello solo by Yo-Yo Ma, it is James's most heartfelt love song in many years.
"Angels Of Fenway" is a song about the 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox baseball team. James intends the song as a tribute to his grandmother, who suffered for years and years rooting for the Babe Ruth-cursed franchise before they finally broke through, impressively overcoming a 3-0 Yankee lead in the American League Championship before sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. It's a nice enough song, with clever clip clop percussion from Luis Conte and a special vocal appearance by James's son Henry (who would have been 3 years old at the time of the Sox victory).
There are two problems with the song, however. First, it is a song that is doomed to be of interest only and mostly to Red Sox Nation. It's doubtful that Yankee Nation would be that impressed. Also, by the time Taylor finally paid tribute to the lovable loser franchise, 10 additional baseball seasons, during which the Sox added two championships and fully shedded their underdog image. Because of this Taylor might have been best served by putting this at the back of the album, or perhaps including as a bonus track. Shockingly, Taylor reports in the liner notes that this is one of the two last songs for which he completed lyrics. Despite its actual recency, the song feels like a dated novelty number that had severely missed its moment and it almost grinds the album to a dead stop.
"Stretch Of The Highway" is another of what James refers to as his "Traveling Songs" The backing vocalists do a fine job on this one and the song is greatly enhanced by woodwinds, including trumpets by Walt Fowler, Barry Danilean and Randy Brecker and saxophones by Lou Marini and Dave Mann. It also features clever organ accents by Larry Goldings.
"Montana" is next, another primo showcase for the backing vocalists and Luis Conte on clip clop percussion. Steve Gadd uses brushes on the drums. James has a vacation home in Montana and this song is a tribute to that state and its natural beauty.
"Watching Over Me" on the other hand is what James describes as a "Recovery Song." The lyric looks at the wonder of whoever or whatever force helped James through his darkest times, when he thought he might end up dead and gone, borrowing the Neil Young phrase "oh, the damage done." Again, the background vocalists contribute mightily to this highly personal, optimistic song.
"Snowtime" is about encountering a Mexican samba celebration in the darkest snowy winter days in Toronto, Canada. The song made its live debut at a show in Toronto on July 24, 2014. Luis Conte plays timbales on this track.
"Before This World/Jolly Springtime" is a medley of numbers paying tribute to the undecipherable wonders of the world and the springtime, respecitively. The medley features guest vocals from Sting, who years before had provided effective support to Taylor's classic song "Jump Up Behind Me", as well as sweet cello support from Taylor's estimable friend and neighbor Yo-Yo Ma.
"Far Afghanistan" is an effective anti-war song regarding a young man from Indiana deployed in the war in Afghanistan. Given that the war dates back to well before the 2004 Red Sox, with its roots in 9/11, this song should have felt as dated as the Fenway song. However, the United States military involvement in Afghanistan was more than a decade long and ultimately would go on into 2021. Steve Gadd provides a military-style snare drum roll, and Taylor provides a coda about the universal soldier, that unfortunately means this song will never go obsolete.
"Wild Mountain Thyme" is the album's only cover--a Scottish/Irish folk song sometimes called "Purple Heather" or "Will Ye Go Lassie, Go" and stemming from a poem by Scottish poet Robert Tannahill set to music by Scottish composer Robert Archibald Smith and first published in the 1820s. The song was adapted to the modern version by a Belfast musician named Francis McPeake in the 1950s, and was highly popular in the 1960s folk revival, covered by among others Joan Baez and the Byrds. James's version is the equal of any, with heartfelt vocals accented by Andrea Zonn's fiddle. It's a nice closer to the album, and James won't be (and in fact isn't) the last to dip his cup in this particular stream. In fact, in 2003, a version was done by James himself at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
If one purchased album at the retail giant Target, there were special bonus tracks that were all covers: Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" and the traditional song "Diamond Joe." They're much in the vein of James's Covers albums, but they actually predate those sessions by 5-9 years and this album by at least 12 years.
Before This World debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart; this not only showed that James had not been forgotten, it was actually the first time one of James's albums had ever hist number one on the Billboard charts. James attributed the milestone to the marketing department at Concord, his latest record label, who made sure that word got out about the album.
Before This World would sadly be the last Taylor album to feature backing vocalist David Lasley, who passed away on December 9, 2021. And to date it is still the last album to feature original compositions from James. His next album would be a very nice album of American Standards. Still , it would be welcome if sometime over the past two years of pandemic, he found time to create at least one more batch of songs. If this album is any indication, it will have been worth the wait.